I do not presume to know what all went on at Henry Louis Gates’ home the night of this incident. I believe he overreacted, but having a husband in law enforcement, it is also likely that the sergeant overstepped his bounds (although I doubt it was because of race).
That being said, you would think that Gates, who had a previous break-in attempt, would be even the ti-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-niest grateful that his neighbor was aware of the surroundings and called the police, and also that the police were willing to come and investigate her call and protect his property.
What Gates and others don’t seem to appreciate is that a policeman never knows what he/she is going to get when they go on a call. It might be routine, it might be fatal, it might be anywhere between the two. When an officer has not been able to determine how much danger he and others are in, the officer will be gruff and harsh, erring on the side of protecting people and property from danger.
Most officers do not want confrontation. All Gates had to do was step out on the porch and speak calmly to the officer, and this would have been cleared up in a few minutes. The whole episode is almost comical – like the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, when King Arthur is trying to get a word in edgewise with the peasant working in the field. He finally lays his hand on the peasant’s shoulder trying to get the man to stop talking. The peasant starts hollering “Witness the violence inherent in the system! Help! I’m being repressed.”